Sunday, August 14, 2016

Ancient Texts & I

Growing up a Mormon affected my relationship to books.

For a Mormon, books are more than just escape or entertainment or information, or even beauty or wisdom, they were a kind of window looking out on the eternal. Some books were special because they contained the word of God – and those books were old, written thousands of years ago by wild-eyed prophets, oversexed poets in perfumed desert tents, nameless historians trying to make sense out of past, present and future, radical religious rebels and perplexing visionaries.

I think that explains why I always had a tendency toward ancient texts, much more so than modern texts – modern books are fine, perhaps also more relevant and certainly more exciting (the ancient authors didn’t get suspense), but to me ancient texts are mysteries to be unraveled, holding truths we have lost today. That’s why when I began studying literature my interest immediately tended to the Middle Ages. Even today I revere the old books more than the new, starting in the Middle Ages but going as far into the modern age as Shakespeare, Cervantes and Montaigne. They have always seemed real to me, while most books written today seem less substantial (with some exceptions, like Rilke).

But there is another aspect – books like the Bible or the Book of Mormon are not chronological. If you read a Stephen King novel or Cervantes you have to start in the beginning and read it through. But Holy Scripture, like an encyclopedia – is not. You can open it to any page at any time and just read and you will have the feeling that you are receiving wisdom or casting an eye into the eternal.

And a lot of those ancient books I love have the same affect – you can pick up Boccaccio and read a story in the middle somewhere, and have the feeling you’ve understood something about human life. You can browse Gracian like the internet and always find something that applies to your life. One of my favorite modern books is “Cultural Amnesia” by Clive James, a collection of brilliant essays – you can pick it up and read anywhere at any time and you will get something out of it. I would love to be able to write a book like that.

As a kid I would sit and read the encyclopedia, and I still love encyclopedias and compendiums.

So it is that that I, when I am tired of the world around me, retreat to the old texts and look to them for wisdom, whether they be religious, like the Bible, or practical, how-to social behavior books like Gracian, or fiction like Wolfram von Eschenbach or Boccaccio or Ovid (though I admit I never got into Homer). I even often dream of rewriting some of these books to bring them into the modern age – in fact, I’m working on a modernization of Erasmus’s classic “In Praise of Folly”.

In the end, the old writers were not actually wiser than modern writers (and thanks to science, writers today know more about life and human behavior than the writers back then did – and if you’ve ever read medieval didactic literature or even writers like Aristotle or Confucius, you’d quickly see that the wrote a lot of bullshit), but somehow there still seems to be a difference to me – maybe writers back then saw their task as something holy – they weren’t simply writing to compete with other writers or to get on the bestseller list, they were looking for truth, or believed they had found it, and not some small detail of the truth or some cliché truth like “the universe is cold” or “love conquers all, but Truth with a capital T, Big Truth.

In so doing, they wrote books that defied genres and categories and somehow found a way to transcend the mundane world. Transcendence – that’s what I’m looking for when I turn to these kinds of books. And I wonder, will people 500 years from now look back at us and find books by our authors today that can transcend the world like the ancient texts did?